In an annual tradition at SF Classical Voice, we once again asked you, the readers, to sound off about this past season’s best performers and performances. As always, the Audience Choice Awards were completely reader-driven — you nominated the finalists, and you voted for the winners. This year’s response in the San Francisco Bay Area was very heartening. With thousands of votes submitted, you proved there is an engaged and passionate audience that is just as interested in smaller groups and emerging talent as in big stars.
Plenty of categories came down to just a few votes, and the winners and nominees definitely reflect the diversity of programming and voices that the Bay Area has always sustained. We hope that the results of this year’s poll encourages even more risk-taking in upcoming seasons, as the Bay Area continues to show why a vibrant arts scene is indispensable to a great community.
Best Opera Singer: Nina Stemme
There have been so many great opera performances in the Bay Area in just the last three months that crowning a winner for the entire season is difficult. But SFCV audiences went with Nina Stemme in her powerhouse portrayal of the Dyer’s Wife in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at San Francisco Opera. Joining a cast of stars in top form, Stemme brought the full package, blasting through the thick orchestration, never flagging in delivering Strauss’s long lines, and bringing a vulnerable humanity to the role for an audience that has rarely had a chance to see this opera. Our readers also were high on runner-up Samuel Faustine, whose performance as the eponymous hero in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, for tiny Pocket Opera, was a comic gem.
Best Chamber Ensemble: Voices of Music
It’s a tribute to co-directors David Tayler and Hanneke van Proosdij’s successful use of video on the internet that Voices of Music has made this corner of the Audience Choice Awards its dominion over the past few years. Drawing their players from the Bay Area’s stock of longtime early music performers, as well as bringing in musicians from around the U.S., this small group has impressive attention to period detail along with engaging programming. The runners-up in this category were Valley of the Moon Music Festival, another historically informed group, and the Alexander String Quartet, that stalwart Bay Area ensemble.
Best Choral Ensemble: American Bach Cantorei
SFCV readers left no doubt about this one, voting for the choral wing of American Bach, the beating heart of the group’s many incredible B-Minor Mass performances, like the one that just concluded the San Francisco Bach Festival. As we always mention, American Bach’s performances of Handel’s Messiah are a December highlight every year.
Best Dance Soloist: Yuan Yuan Tan
Having joined the San Francisco Ballet as a soloist in 1995, the 47-year-old Yuan Yuan Tan qualifies as a living legend — that rare principal dancer who can defy the aging process to perform one of the most physically demanding arts at a premier level over almost three decades. ACA voters paid tribute to her artistry and her status once again with this win.
Best Early Music/Baroque Ensemble: Voices of Music
Voices of Music came out on top thanks to another season of musical excellence, which included an innovative collaboration with a Balinese dance company. The group’s co-directors and many of its instrumentalists also play in Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the runner-up in this category.
Best New Music Ensemble: Opera Parallèle
Another crowded category. The Bay Area is filled with new music, both wacky and wonderful. But Opera Parallèle, fresh off its triumphant production of Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell’s The Shining in June, takes the gold here. With the company’s immersive Everest production also in mind, voters had every reason to spotlight Opera Parallèle. Last year’s winner, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, was runner-up.
Best Orchestra: San Francisco Symphony
Goliath wins again, taking almost 60 percent of the vote. With a world-class music director in Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra had another year of highlights, culminating in June with an epochal, emotional performance of Kaija Saariaho’s second opera, Adriana Mater. Not content with that, the orchestra served up a rare and stunning performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto (with Igor Levit as soloist), Julia Wolfe’s oratorio Her Story, and Collaborative Partner Julia Bullock’s fascinating recital-within-a-concert. That the orchestra handled all of this (and gave an impeccable performance of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé at the end) is testament enough to the musicians, and really the whole organization behind them. Runner-up Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, operating on a much smaller budget, should be proud.
Best Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
The hardworking music director of the San Francisco Symphony follows his orchestra into the winner’s circle, fending off strong challenges from Voices of Music’s Hanneke van Proosdij and San Francisco Opera’s Eun Sun Kim. Salonen has helped keep the SF Symphony whole in body and soul (if not in numbers — there are still many seats to fill in the orchestra) and delivered some of the season’s most vital performances. SFCV voters were pleased to recognize him again this year.
Best Instrumental Soloist: Yunchan Lim
Voters were quite clear, awarding the palm to pianist Yunchan Lim for his solo recital last September for Steinway Society – The Bay Area. SFCV’s reporter Elijah Ho wrote, “It was the kind of inspired, courageous playing music-lovers have clamored over for decades. For a pianist who spends all day in the practice room, Lim is rather generous about throwing all caution to the wind when he’s onstage. And when the young South Korean is in his element, there are few sounds more ravishing in the world.” Coming in second was young pianist Talon Smith.
Best Jazz Vocalist: Samara Joy
It was Samara Joy’s year everywhere, so it’s not surprising that she won ACA voters over as well. Although it was a close call between her and Juanita Harris, Joy could not be denied. Her June set for SFJAZZ, backed by a hard-driving septet with a fat horn section, won’t be soon forgotten. But if you missed her there, she has a date at the Monterey Jazz Festival coming up.
Best Jazz Instrumentalist: Mads Tolling
Bay Area voters have many memories of this two-time Grammy-winning violinist, a leader on the local scene and a highly deserving winner here. His recent performances at SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab, with pianist Tammy L. Hall and bassist Marcus Shelby, are part of his long history in the Bay, but you can catch him again at Piedmont Piano Company on Sept. 1 and 2. Accordionist/pianist Rob Reich, who headlined at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival in June, was runner-up.
Best Opera Performance: San Francisco Opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten
It was, again, an incredibly strong year for opera in the Bay Area, but San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s huge, mythic, demanding work was the undeniable top choice of SFCV’s opera lovers. Stunningly cast, brilliantly conducted by the company’s former music director, Donald Runnicles, and with stunning stage design by the protean David Hockney, this is a production that truly made local history. And speaking of history, SF Opera’s first Spanish-language production, Gabriela Lena Frank and Nilo Cruz’s brilliant El último sueño de Frida y Diego, was remembered by SFCV readers, slotting in as runner-up.
Best Chamber Performance: Voices of Music, “Musica Transalpina”
Voices of Music’s splendid “Musica Transalpina” concert, spotlighting Italian music in 17th-century England, was the voters’ choice in this category. With star violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Augusta McKay Lodge headlining the program, the virtuosic Italian violin never sounded so smooth. Runner-up was Valley of the Moon Music Festival’s innovative “The Symphony as Trio” concert.
Best Choral Performance: American Bach, Mass in B Minor
It’s always a major choral year in the Bay Area, but when American Bach does the Mass in B Minor, that’s just the icing on the cake. Voters anointed this performance at the recent San Francisco Bach Festival as their favorite of the season. SFCV’s Steven Winn reported, “The audience responded to this Bach Mass with the Baroque lover’s equivalent of a pop star’s ovations.”
Best Dance Performance: San Francisco Ballet, Romeo and Juliet
While doing tons of exciting new works, San Francisco Ballet also knows where its bread is buttered: the great story ballets. ACA voters chose Helgi Tomasson’s staging of Sergei Prokofiev’s score, peopled by the company’s great principal and solo dancers and a brilliantly strong corps. Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco stood out as the star-crossed lovers, as did Mathilde Froustey and Joseph Walsh. Runner-up in this category was Voices of Music for its collaboration with Balam Dance Theatre on “Metamorphosis.”
Best New Music Performance: Talon Smith, 24 Preludes
A surprise winner here, as the young pianist’s supporters came out in droves to vote for his February recital in San José, where he performed his own Op. 1, just published in January. Runner-up was Voices of Music, with “Metamorphosis.”
Best Orchestral Performance: San Francisco Symphony, “MTT Conducts Mahler’s Sixth”
The magician Michael Tilson Thomas is still in command of his powers, especially when it comes to the music of Gustav Mahler. Readers recognized his finely detailed reading of the “Tragic” Sixth Symphony in March 2023 as their fave of the year, and it’s a work they’ve heard him conduct before, most recently in 2019 and 2020. The SF Symphony took runner-up honors as well, for Igor Levit playing Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto.
Best Early Music/Baroque Performance: Voices of Music, “Holiday Concertos”
Voices of Music’s “Holiday Concertos” program vanquished all comers in this category, besting American Bach’s B-Minor Mass performance. VoM’s fans really showed their devotion this year.
Best Instrumental Recital: Yunchan Lim (presented by Steinway Society – The Bay Area)
Yunchan Lim became a global sensation in 2022 when he won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at the age of 18. He brought his talents to San José in September for Steinway Society, delivering a performance that easily clinched the top slot for instrumental recitals this year.
Best Vocal Recital: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (for San Francisco Opera’s Schwabacher Recital Series)
The competition was very stiff here, but Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen eked out the win for his Schwabacher Recital Series appearance, returning to the Merola Opera Program where he trained in 2016. Just barely behind was Julia Bullock for her appearance with the San Francisco Symphony, and Nina Stemme’s Cal Performances recital also earned nearly a third of the votes.
Best Jazz Performance: “An Evening With Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding” at Yoshi’s
Two of the foremost jazz musicians working today, Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding, came together for four sold-out shows at Yoshi’s, celebrating the release of their album Alive at the Village Vanguard. With nearly two dozen Grammy nominations between them, it’s no surprise that the duo took the top spot for Best Jazz Performance with this evening of selections ranging from the Great American Songbook to Brazilian music and Hersch’s own compositions.
Best Large Venue: Davies Symphony Hall
Sometimes bigger is better, and Davis Symphony Hall, home to the San Francisco Symphony, was, once again, this year’s favorite large venue for Bay Area concertgoers. The War Memorial Opera House came in a close second, with First Congregational Church of Berkeley putting in an impressive showing for the East Bay in third.
Best Small Venue: St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco
While competition was stiff in the large venue category, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco was far and away the readers’ choice for Best Small Venue this year. Places of worship are central to the musical community of the Bay Area, and the historic and beautiful sanctuary of St. Mark’s is a prime example.
Best Club Venue: Freight & Salvage
Although Yoshi’s in Oakland earned a commendable second place, the freewheeling Berkeley venue Freight & Salvage repeated last year’s victory in this category. Founded in the anti-establishment atmosphere of 1968, the distinctive space continues to present a wide range of music from diverse traditions.
Best Festival: San Francisco Bach Festival (presented by American Bach)
American Bach’s summer festival took first place for the second year in a row, beating Valley of the Moon Music Festival by just a handful of votes. Concluding with Bach’s magnificent B-Minor Mass, the 2023 schedule focused on the contemporary resonances of the Baroque, with a new composition for period instruments and a piano recital of transcriptions of Bach’s works.
Best New Discovery: Yunchan Lim
It’s no surprise that Yunchan Lim easily took the prize here. His Steinway Society recital of Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn, and Franz Liszt showed great maturity and an adventurous spirit, all the more impressive because this musician is just beginning what will surely be a magnificent career.
Best Streaming Performance or Series: Yunchan Lim (presented by Steinway Society – The Bay Area)
Yunchan Lim’s victory at the Cliburn Competition was watched by audiences around the world, and he continued to impress viewers at home with this recital, which was livestreamed from San José. Even as concert halls have reopened after pandemic closures, we are lucky to have continued access to wonderful music shared in this medium.